Walking through the Playa Del Rey beachside community on a Monday afternoon in early November, Lance Stephenson is all smiles. He’s back living in the same nearby Los Angeles community he resided in just three years earlier when he was a member of the Clippers. And while he’s opted for the familiar scenery in his return to L.A., his journey back has been a bumpy roller-coaster ride that has brought him back to La La Land with a different mindset after a tumultuous three years in the Association.
In the summer of 2015, the Charlotte Hornets traded the 6-5 Brooklyn guard to the Clippers in exchange for Matt Barnes and Spencer Hawes. His time in Los Angeles would end up being quick and frustrating, as his playing time dwindled from the start and he never truly found his rhythm and role within the rotation. Eventually, by the time the trade deadline came around, Stephenson’s stint in L.A. had come to an end—he was subsequently traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in exchange for Jeff Green. The short-lived tenure in the City of Angeles, which surely left a bad taste in Stephenson’s mouth, led to a three-year expedition that ultimately brought him back—this time in the purple and gold as he looks for a little redemption.
After he was moved to the Grizzlies, Stephenson’s time in the League got even rockier. Despite averaging a career-best 14.2 points in his 26 games with the team to finish off the regular season in Memphis, including a career-high 33-point performance against the New Orleans Pelicans and then a 26-point outing in the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs, the franchise declined to pick up his team option for the final year of his contract.
This would lead to the toughest point in his career: the 2016-17 campaign. He signed with the Pelicans that offseason but after suffering a groin injury just two weeks into the regular season, which ruled him out for six to 10 weeks and required surgery, he was waived by the team just three days later. He waited around for a call from another team for three months before the Minnesota Timberwolves, who had lost guard Zach LaVine for the remainder of the season to an ACL injury, called offering only a 10-day contract. Yet less than a week after signing with the Wolves, Stephenson found himself battling another nagging injury—this time a grade 2 ankle sprain. He’d nonetheless earned a second 10-day contract with the team before being waived by the franchise after only appearing in six games.
“I had times when I felt like, Man, I don’t think I’m going to be in the League next year. But I always knew that if I worked hard and believed in myself and put God first, I’d have a chance,” Stephenson says. “I was controlling what I could control and that was being in the gym and just working hard because I knew my chance would come again.”
Less than two weeks later, in a rather surprising turn of events, the Indiana Pacers signed the former Coney Island prodigy to a three-year deal, marking the fifth team Stephenson had joined in less than two seasons. The grand return to Indiana, where he first earned his “Lance Makes Em Dance” and “Sir Lance A Lot” monikers, brought back his old swag while giving the Pacers a much-needed energy and confidence spark off the bench. Last season, he helped play a role in Indiana almost defeating the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, coming within 5 points of a Game 7 victory.
“It’s crazy because I went from getting hurt, to the team cutting me, to then doing 10-days with the Timberwolves and then signing a three-year contract with the Pacers,” he says. “It was like, unbelievable. It was definitely amazing and I think that was God answering all my prayers—and just all the hard work I went through to get the opportunity that I got. Just going from not playing at all and doing 10 days to being on a team that actually uses you as much as possible, and then helping the team win—that was amazing.
“I knew what I could do. I just needed the opportunity. I just knew that if I could get the minutes and the playing time to show my talent, I knew what I could do in this League. And so [the Pacers] gave me an opportunity as soon as I came back to the team. I mean, I worked so hard and everything was coming easy to me. When you have a team that believes in you and pushes you to be great, your talent does the rest.”
The Pacers declined their team option for the final year of Lance’s contract last June, which paved the way for him to become a free agent. A week or so later, an incoming call from Magic Johnson secured Stephenson’s return to Los Angeles, where he now looks to take care of unfinished business and redeem the short-lived tenure at Staples Center from three years ago.
“Definitely going through all the situations that I went through after I left the Pacers—being on five different teams—I just feel like it was a great experience through the ups and downs. I learned from all the ups and downs that I went through. I think it made me stronger and it made me the person I am now,” he says. “I learned that you gotta stay positive and you gotta stay hungry throughout the tough times when I wasn’t even playing or getting as much playing time as I wanted. I stuck with it. I learned that I could control only what I could control, and that was getting in the gym and working harder every day, pushing myself to be better and just watching a lot of film. Mostly it was keeping my body in shape because when you’re not playing that much you could get out of shape easily. So my goal was to always be in shape because you never know when your opportunity comes.”
His return to Hollywood has helped bring his flashy NYC-bred handles and off-the-dribble moves back to the national stage, and only five weeks into the season, he’s already become a fan-favorite. He’s shown flashes of the kind of impact and spark he can bring to a team. In only the second week of the season he dropped 23 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists against the Phoenix Suns off the bench, shooting 10-14 from the floor.
“I was at home chilling and I got that call from Magic,” he says. “I was like, No way! They want me on the Lakers? And with LeBron and the young fellas we have, I was like, I can’t turn this down. I’m just happy for this opportunity and I feel like as I continue to work, many [more] blessings are going to come.
“I was like, You think LeBron wants me on this team?!” he continues. “I definitely knew that playing alongside him I could help him and help bring in that energy and that toughness, that defense, and also a clutch performance in some games—I feel like I’m built for tough, close games. I knew I could help this unit. I’ve now played for Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and now Magic Johnson. Talking to those great players helped my game out, just learning how they think.”
A highly touted prospect since his early days at famed Lincoln High School, where he led the school to four consecutive city championships and was ranked among the top-10 players in the Class of 2009, the past eight years since his arrival to the NBA have given the former Cincinnati Bearcat a different perspective on the game and his role. The humbling experiences and particularly the obstacles of the past four years have set the stage for his return to L.A., where he now looks to prove why the Born Ready nickname rings true today more than ever.
“When you’re a rookie, you gotta understand that everyone is good. You might not get your opportunity when you first come in. I remember my first two years I was sitting in a suit behind the bench,” Lance says. “What I took from it was I learned as much as I could from the older guys and what they brought to the table that kept them on the court and kept them in the rotation. It’s not about talent. You gotta know the game. You gotta know the plays, every position, to get on that floor. Eventually you learn you can’t just go. You gotta do it with a team.”
Franklyn Calle is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.
Portraits by Ryan Young.